There's something endlessly fascinating about old maps. They provide a glimpse of the past showing how things changed. Highways become Interstates or are downgraded to state routes with abandoned alignments. It's easy to get lost in history or spend hours tracing the lines of the roads that connected America.
Perhaps that's why the Wisconsin Department of Transportation made its entire archive of state highway maps available recently. Dating back to 1916, you can view the progress of each decade up to 2019. WisDOT scanned all of the maps, making them available to view or download, and published a review called "A Century-old Time Capsule Beyond Highway History."
The first map from 1916 shows the principal roads of travel and cautions people to first check the routes before starting a journey in something like a Ford Model T or Dodge Touring. The map indicates the routes are "the best practicable and most commonly used" before saying that if anything is inaccurate, "corrections will be appreciated."
By 1926, the ambiguous nature of the routes was replaced by a map of Wisconsin's State Trunk Highway System. Proclaiming, "It's harder to get lost in WISCONSIN than to find the way in many states," the map is invaluable if someone wants to drive their Buick Master Six from Janesville to Kenosha on paved or surfaced roads. Most of the routes followed the red lines of the 1916 map as roadbuilders improved the existing roads.
Each decade shows measurable progress. The 1936 map shows US, state, and county highways along with common road signs and a table showing distances between cities and major towns. Maps in the 1940s include tourist destinations and local maps of cities like Milwaukee, Green Bay, or Sheboygan. 1950s maps added color, and by the 1960s, the Interstate Highway System connected Milwaukee and Madison to Chicago and Rockford, Illinois.
Follow the maps from the 1960s to today to watch the Interstates creep north to Wausau, Superior, and north of Green Bay. The maps of this time period all have a consistent look, providing an easy familiarity with destinations even as incremental changes occur over the decades. One thing that hasn't changed is people can still order an official folded Wisconsin State Highway Map and other travel guides. The current version dates to 2019, but the 2023 edition is being printed and will be ready this summer.